Friday, May 31, 2013

The bishop of Harvard - Remarks at the memorial service of the 35th reunion of the Harvard class of 1978 - J. Barry Vaughn

Peter liked to tell the story of the Harvard professor who began a conversation with him by saying, "Should I die, Dr. Gomes..." Like that professor, I suspect that Peter never quite believed that someday he would be promoted from the church on earth to the church in heaven. But that day DID come, and this is our first reunion without Peter. He shook our hands at the door of Memorial Church on Freshman Sunday and gave us his blessing when we graduated. Peter held the position of Plummer Professor of Christian Morals from 1974 until his death two years ago.

My friendship with Peter was improbable. I was a white kid from rural Alabama; he was black, a Harvard professor, and a Yankee. We WERE both Baptists, although I had never seen a Baptist like Peter. Like so many of you, I met him the first Sunday of freshman year and we were friends for the rest of his life.

We all have our favorite Gomes' anecdotes. Mine has to do with Peter's visit to my church in Alabama in 1984. It was (thank God) George Wallace's last term as governor of Alabama. I wondered how to thank Peter for coming to preach. What do you get a man who has everything? Well, in this case, it took a special act of the Alabama legislature.

At the luncheon after the service, I presented Peter with a beautifully framed and elegant document declaring him to be an "honorary lieutenant colonel aide-de-camp" in the Alabama state militia that was signed by Governor George Corley Wallace. For once Peter was almost speechless. "Well shut my mouth!" he finally said.

The public Peter Gomes was larger than life: a peerless preacher, a raconteur without equal, a shameless namedropper, always delightful company.

But I suspect that many of you, like I, value even more your acquaintance with the private Peter Gomes: the many kindnesses, the time he took to return phone calls and write letters in longhand, the fact that whenever I dropped in on him, he made the time to talk with me, and that he greeted me as "my dear boy" no matter how many years it had been since graduation.

It was the private Peter Gomes, the pastor, to whom I went on a cold, rainy spring afternoon during sophomore year when I finally realized that I was gay. 

And it was Gomes the pastor who influenced my decision to enter the ministry, not only because he did the kinds of things I wanted to do, but even more because he was the kind of man I wanted to be.

Peter was far from perfect. He loved good food and drink perhaps a little too well; he delighted in the company of the well to do and successful; and he loved to gossip. But perfection is over-rated. Peter's imperfections only made him more loveable.

Peter loved to tell the story of going to an elegant event in London. According to him, the ladies wore tiaras and the gentlemen wore medals. Peter, ever the high church Baptist, wore a clerical collar. A tiara-ed lady fell into conversation with him and asked, "My lord, what is your diocese?" Peter explained that he was the Harvard University chaplain, so she introduced him to her husband as "the bishop of Harvard."

That's about as good a description of Peter as I can think of - "the bishop of Harvard."

When he announced his retirement, Trevor Potter and I decided that we wanted to commission a piece of music for the University Choir in his honor, so we set up a conference call with him to discuss the text and talk about composers. I asked Peter if he had a composer in mind. "Well, I supposed Elgar is dead," he said. It was the last conversation I had with him.

I sincerely hope that he has made Elgar's acquaintance in the heavenly kingdom and that they are getting along famously. But I have no doubt that when it is Wednesday afternoon in heaven, the bishop of Harvard is presiding at tea and entertaining the heavenly host with his stories.

Let us pray:

Support us, O Lord, all the day long of this troublous life, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, in thy great mercy, grant us a safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last. Amen.

 Into thy hands, O merciful Lord, we commend thy servant Peter. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech thee, a sheep of thine own fold, a lamb of thine own flock, a sinner of thine own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of thy mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Barry's 35th reunion blog - May 30, 2013

The Harvard alma mater begins, "Fair Harvard, we join in thy jubilee throng..." And throng they do. Harvard has over 300,000 alumni, and 20% of them live outside the United States. But today they all seemed to be in Harvard Yard.

It was a day of pomp and ceremony. One of the traditions of commencement is for a bagpiper to go around to all the dorms and wake the graduating seniors with bagpipe music. Following that rude awakening, they are given a breakfast of cornflakes and champagne... well, champagne, anyway...

But as returning alumni, we had to make our way at least a quarter of a mile away to a tent located near the Science Center for a simpler breakfast. Degrees are granted by President Drew Faust at the morning exercises in Harvard Yard. That's not a terribly interesting thing to watch, plus I knew that I would be on my feet in the hot sun for a good part of the afternoon performing my duties as a marshall. So I went back to my room after breakfast to work on my remarks for the class memorial service tomorrow.

But the morning exercises have their high points. One is the Latin Oration. A graduating senior gives a speech, usually humorous, in Latin. When I graduated all the seniors were given translations so that we would laugh at the appropriate moments and our parents would be impressed by our erudition (not to mention believing that we had acquired the occupationally essential skill of knowing Latin). But today, alas, they display the translation on enormous screens at several places in Harvard Yard. O tempora! O mores!!

But both at breakfast and lunch I got to see former roommate Warren Behr and his wife Dr. Karen Freund (also an undergraduate friend).

My marshall duties were not onerous. I had to hand out "picket signs" that said "1977", "1954", and "1963" to the appropriate classes. Amazingly, there was an alumnus present today who is 104 years old. And I saw several alumni back for their 50th reunion. Apparently, going to Harvard is good for your health!

The worst part of "marshaling" was being out in the hot sun in morning coat, vest, and top hat. The outfit looks good but it's too damn hot!

Ms. Winfrey was a little disappointing. Her presence is wonderful, and I would kill to have her voice. But her speech was right out of the Golden Book of Commencement addresses: "Turn mistakes into opportunities" and that sort of thing.

The alma mater goes on: "And with blessings surrender thee o'er..." And boy, do they ever surrender their blessings to Harvard! The 25th reunion class raised about $150 million for the university. I believe my class "only" raised $50 million for our 25th reunion.

But "Fair Harvard" - our alma mater - does move me: "First flower of their wilderness! Star of their night / Calm rising through change and thro' storm." Although it's not nearly as funny as Tom Lehrer's send up of a Harvard fight song: "Fight fiercely, Harvard! Fight, fight, fight! / Demonstrate to them our skill. / Albeit they possess the might / nonetheless, we have the will. / How shall we celebrate our victory? / We shall invite the whole team up for tea! (How jolly!) / Let's try not to injure them / but fight, fight, fight. (Let's not be rough, though.) / and fight, fight, fight."


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Barry's 35th reunion blog - May 29, 2013

Possibly the best thing ever written about being a student in a university is this excerpt from This Side of Paradise by Princeton drop-out F. Scott Fitzgerald:


"The grass is full of ghosts tonight." "The whole campus is alive with them."  They paused by Little and watched the moon rise, to make silver of the slate roof of Dodd and blue the rustling trees. "You know," whispered Tom, "what we feel now is the sense of all the gorgeous youth that has rioted through here in two hundred years.... And what we leave here is more than class; it's the whole heritage of youth. We're just one generation-- we're breaking all the links that seemed to bind us here to top-booted and high-stocked generations. We've walked arm and arm with Burr and Light-Horse Harry Lee through half these deep-blue nights." "That's what they are," Tom tangented off, "deep-blue-- a bit of color would spoil them, make them exotic. Spires, against a sky that's a promise of dawn, and blue light on the slate roofs-- it hurts... rather--" "Good-by, Aaron Burr," Amory called toward deserted Nassau Hall, "you and I knew strange corners of life.”


Fitzgerald was right. When you go back for a reunion, whether it is a college or high school class or a family reunion, you will meet a lot of ghosts. You meet the ghost of yourself as you used to be. You may even meet the ghost of the self you might have been. You meet the ghosts of those you knew and loved (and sometimes those you didn't even like) and are no longer here.


The weight of history in a place like Harvard can be a bit overwhelming. Eight U.S. presidents have graduated from Harvard, starting with John Adams (Class of 1755) and ending with Barack Obama (Harvard Law School '91). And they weren't all Democrats: George W. Bush received his MBA from Harvard in 1975.


The 35th is considered a "major reunion" by the alumni office, so they have given us accommodations in the dorms, except Harvard doesn't exactly have dorms. From sophomore through senior year, the great majority of undergrads live in one of twelve "houses." I was in Lowell House, and they were kind enough to put me in Lowell for this reunion. In fact, I'm next door to the suite where I lived for two years. Don't get the wrong idea: the accommodations are hardly palatial. Harvard goes more for charm and tradition than comfort and convenience.


 I'm on nostalgia overload right now. I can look out the window at the dining hall where I was in charge of the Lowell House spring opera in 1977.


Tomorrow is Commencement. I wish all the graduates great success and hope that they realize that in just a couple of days they will be coming back here for their 35th reunion. At least, that's the way it seems to me...

Monday, May 27, 2013

Veritas (J. Barry Vaughn, May 26, 2013)

In 1620 a group of religious radicals set sail from Plymouth, England. Their destination was New England, and they ended up in the part of New England that became Massachusetts, but of course, the land to which they were traveling had no name. In 1620 it was simply the wilderness.

Unlike the Anglicans who had founded Jamestown in Virginia in 1607, the Mayflower Pilgrims had come to stay. The Mayflower's passengers included couples, even families. Children were born during the voyage. In contrast, the Anglicans down south in Virginia were mostly young, single men who had come to America to make a quick profit.

The Pilgrims built homes, schools, and churches, and only 16 years after the Mayflower landed, they built a university. It was known at first as the "College at New Town" but soon New Town became Cambridge, and after a young graduate of Cambridge University died and left his books and a little money to the college, the Pilgrims named their college after its benefactor - John Harvard.

Harvard's motto is a single word  - Veritas or truth. The quest for truth was central to the Pilgrims' enterprise. John Robinson, the pastor of the Pilgrims' church, said, "I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word."  They were convinced that the Church of England was not being faithful to the truth of God revealed in scripture, and so they made an unbelievably risky journey across the Atlantic. And as soon as they settled in New England, they launched a university, an institution in which the quest for truth is its central mission.

In today's gospel, Jesus says to the disciples, "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth."

"When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth."

Truth is a major theme in John's gospel. In John, Jesus says, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." Also in John, Jesus declares himself to be "the way, the truth, and the life."

If you were asked to define the Christian faith, how many of you would say that it is about seeking and finding the truth?

Evangelicals might say that Christianity is about being saved, and that is not a bad answer. The angel Gabriel told Mary that she would bear a son named Jesus, a Hebrew name that means "God saves." Salvation is certainly a central idea in Christianity.

Others might say that the Christian faith is about justice. Justice in the Old Testament sense of the word was certainly an important component of Jesus' mission. The prophets of Israel defined justice as caring for the poor, taking the side of the vulnerable, making sure that the weakest members of the community were cared for. According to Luke's gospel, the first sermon that Jesus preached at the synagogue in Nazareth was on this text from Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor..."

The quest for truth can be lonely. It is not a way to win friends and influence people. More often than not it is a way to lose friends and alienate people! Furthermore, there's a certain coldness to the concept of truth.

Now before I go any further, want you to think about why truth is such an important idea. Arguably, the most dangerous conflict in the world today is between Christianity and Islam and that is presented to us as a conflict between competing truth claims. Actually, I think truth doesn't have much to do with it, but that's a topic for another time. Even within Christianity itself there is an intense, sometimes even vicious, conflict between fundamentalists and the rest of us about the nature of truth.

I want to make three points: First, reason is only one aspect of truth. Second, imagination is just as important as reason in knowing the truth. And finally, truth is relational.

First, nearly everyone would agree that reason is a way to the truth. For some, it is the only way to the truth. Thomas Jefferson said, "Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear." Excellent advice.

But today is Trinity Sunday and it is difficult to reconcile reason with belief in the Trinity. Jefferson also said, "Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the Trinity."

So back to my original question: Is Christianity a quest for truth? Well, if you ask those outside the church, those who have no use for religion, for example, the late Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins or other exponents of the so-called "new atheism," they would hardly say that the Christian faith is about truth. For them religion is at best self-deception and at worst a lie. For them science is truth and religion is just a myth or a crutch.

But the problem is partly with our understanding of truth. If we define truth just in terms of intellect or reason, then I'm not sure I would agree that Christianity is a quest for truth. If we define truth exclusively in terms of reason, then mathematics is the highest form of truth.

But what if truth is not just a matter of the intellect and reason? What if it is also a matter of the imagination?

The opening chapters of the Bible tell us a story about where the world came from, where you and I came from. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth... God said, 'Let there be light and there was light'... and the evening and the morning were the first day..." Did God create the world in seven 24 hour periods? Did God grab a handful of clay and fashion Adam, then did God make Eve out of a rib taken from Adam's side?

The story of creation in Genesis is just as true as two plus two equals four, but it is a truth of the imagination, not of reason.

I believe that the imagination is just as important in finding and knowing the truth as reason is. The truths of poets and musicians and painters are just as true as those of physicists and mathematicians. The imagination allows us to hold up a mirror to our lives, to see ourselves through the eyes of others, and to imagine not only what is but what might be.

Today is the last Sunday that the choir will be with us until they return after Labor Day. The music that they provide for our services is not just entertainment. It is not just a background score for the service. It is a kind of truth. Great music changes our perception of reality and gives us a glimpse into truths for which words are inadequate.

There is one more aspect to the Christian understanding of truth. Truth is not just a matter of the intellect. It is not even a matter of the intellect plus imagination. For the Christian, truth is above all a Person. When Jesus said, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free," he was inviting us into a relationship.

The idea that the truth is a person is not such a far-fetched idea. How do we know love except in a relationship? We do not learn to trust by studying books about it; we learn to trust by being in a relationship with those who are trustworthy.

When the 17th century philosopher Descartes set out to find truth, he said that the only indisputable fact was the fact of his own existence. "I think, therefore I am." But Descartes was wrong. We are social animals, not lonely atoms spinning around in a void. I think because someone prodded me into thinking. I love because someone loved me into loving.  We are the sum total of our relationships. As soon as we are born, our relationships with others start to affect us. 

And our most important relationship is our relationship with the God revealed in Christ.

Truth is three dimensional. Reason is only the horizontal dimension of truth. It answers our "what" and "how" questions. Imagination is the vertical dimension of truth. It answers our "Why" questions. Why are we here? Why is there something rather than nothing? And relationships are the global dimension of truth. The relational dimension of truth gives meaning and substance to reason and imagination, to the what and why of truth.

In other words, truth is trinitarian. Each aspect of truth is independent. We can investigate truth through reason alone, as science does. Or our quest for truth can be purely a matter of the imagination as it is for a writer, musician, or artist. Or we can pursue truth through relationship.

But if we would know truth itself (or should I say Truth Himself?), then it requires a commitment of our reason, our imagination, of our very being. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind..."

Think about what Jesus said to his disciples at the Last Supper? Not believe this, not argue about this, but DO this in remembrance of me.

Don't misunderstand me; I'm not dismissing the importance of doctrine or cognitive truth, but I do believe that the truth of Christianity cannot be captured fully in a set of statements. I believe that the Puritan pastor John Robinson was right when he said that "God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from his holy Word."

"When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth."

Jesus has summoned us to follow him in a quest for truth, a quest that had no beginning and will have no end, a quest in which we will find that the more we know, the more there is to know, because the Truth we are seeking is no more and no less than God himself.



Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Miracles of Pentecost and the Great Commission (J. Barry Vaughn, May 19, 2013)

The first year that I taught, one of my students was a young man named Hayes. I found out that he was a Pentecostal and decided to pull his leg. One day after class I said, “Hayes, do you go to a Pentecostal church?” “Yes, Dr. Vaughn,” he replied. “So does that mean that you speak in tongues?” A little tentatively, he said, “Yes, I do.” Then I said, “Do you think you can satisfy the university’s foreign language requirement by speaking in tongues?” I’m pretty sure Hayes was speechless at that point. I don’t think he could even speak in tongues!

The story of the Day of Pentecost is one of the most spectacular stories in scripture. It was a day of wonders. A mighty wind swept through the streets of Jerusalem; tongues of flame came down upon the heads of the disciples; and they all began to proclaim the good news in every languages upon the face of the earth.

But spectacular as Pentecost is, it is a very un-Episcopalian festival.

If tongues of fire appeared on your heads, I’m pretty sure that the first reaction of the vestry would be to call the Church Insurance Corporation to make sure our premiums were up to date.

Do you know comedian Robin Williams’ “Top Ten Reasons to be an Episcopalian”? – 1. . You can believe in dinosaurs; 2. Free wine on Sunday; 3. All of the pageantry and none of the guilt; and so on- I imagine that most Episcopalians would like to add “No speaking in tongues” to their top ten reasons for being Episcopalian.

But we need Pentecost. Pentecost completes the work of Easter. The resurrection of Jesus was a great and joyful miracle, but it is not enough by itself to explain the explosive growth of the early church. Both the gospels and the Book of Acts tell us that even after the resurrection, the disciples huddled together in fear and uncertainty until the Risen Christ sent the Holy Spirit upon them and gave them an inner source of strength and power.

I want to focus on three miracles of Pentecost. First, the ability to speak new languages. Second, the ability to hear what other people are saying. And third, the liberation of God.

First, on Pentecost the disciples of Jesus were given the miraculous ability to speak in other languages. All the clergy I know love the feast of Pentecost because we enjoy watching the layreader trying to pronounce the strange words in today’s reading – Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Pontus, Phrygia, and so on.

But those are the names of all the nations who were present in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. Before Pentecost was a Christian festival, it was a Jewish festival. In fact, it still is a Jewish festival, but our Jewish sisters and brothers call it Shavuot, the “feast of weeks” and it takes place seven weeks after Passover. Shavuot or the feast of weeks is one of the three “feasts of pilgrimage” on which Jews were to go to the holy city of Jerusalem if at all possible.

So when the Holy Spirit came down upon the disciples, Jerusalem was full of Jews from other parts of the worlds, Jews whose first language was something other than Hebrew or Aramaic.

We live in a world that is a lot like Jerusalem on that first Pentecost. The world is suddenly a very small place. Our neighbors are as likely to speak Bengali or Yoruba or Quechua as they are to speak English. It is no longer enough for us to proclaim the gospel just in English. We need another Pentecost to give us the power to proclaim preach the gospel in new ways so that the world can hear the good news that Jesus gave us to proclaim.

But learning a foreign language is the least of our problems.

If someone who had never visited an Episcopal Church, especially someone with no knowledge of the Christian faith, walked into a staff meeting or vestry meeting at Christ Church, they might think that we were all a little tipsy, even if it was only 9 o’clock in the morning. They might even think that we were speaking in an unknown language.

They would hear us speak of the Eucharist and the liturgy, the collect of the day (accent on the first syllable, please) and the prayer of humble access. They might hear me complain that the acolyte and the crucifer were whispering during the canticle. Or they might hear a conversation about rectors, permanent deacons, transitional deacons, diocesan bishops, suffragan bishops, bishops coadjutor, canons to the ordinary, canons to the  EXTRAORDINARY, and so on.

If you want to become an Episcopalian, you have to learn a whole new language. Of course, to a greater or lesser degree, every family has its own language, and Episcopalians are a family – a fighting, feuding, dysfunctional family, but still a family.

But that prompts me to wonder: Why would anyone want to join the Episcopal Church if we make it so difficult for them to get involved with us? Of course, the esoteric language we speak might be part of the attraction for some. Learning to speak “Episcopal-ese” is kind of like learning the secret handshake or the code word.

But for others, for many, perhaps for most, the obstacles to participation in the Episcopal Church are just too high.

It is time for the Episcopal Church to learn to speak a language that people can understand, to lower the barriers that keep people from participating fully in our services. That is the reason that our Sunday service leaflets now include the entire service.

The second miracle of Pentecost was the power to hear what others were saying. Listen again to this verse from the second chapter of Acts: “Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each…”

The gift of tongues, the gift of miraculous utterance is all very well and good, but it does no good unless it is accompanied by the gift of understanding, and I believe that this is the greater and more important gift.

We not only need to proclaim the gospel, we also need to listen to and hear what others are saying. Are we attentive to the world around us? Do we hear what people are asking for? Are our ears really open to cries of the poor and disenfranchised?

All too often there is a disconnect between the ministry of the church and the needs of the world. From time to time, we need to do an inventory of our ministries and find out if they really match the needs of the world around us. And to do that we need the second miracle of Pentecost: the gift of understanding what others are saying.

The third and greatest miracle of Pentecost is the liberation of God.

The liberation of God? What in the world do I mean by that? Surely, God is radically free. God is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient. True enough, but we do everything in our power to confine, constrain, and limit God. As theologian J.B. Phillips said, our God is too small. We want a small God, a God who conforms to our prejudices and preconceptions. But this is no new thing.

In the ancient world, it was believed that there were a different gods for every national group – Greek gods, Persian gods, Egyptian gods, and so on. And these gods more or less confined themselves to particular geographical areas.

Do you remember Psalm 137? It is the lament of Jews who have been carried into exile by the Babylonians.

By the waters of Babylon,

there we sat down and wept,

when we remembered Zion. 

On the willows there

we hung up our lyres. 

For there our captors

required of us songs,

and our tormentors, mirth,

saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!" 

How shall we sing the LORD's song

in a foreign land? 

The Jewish captives could not sing the Lord’s song in a foreign or strange land because they believed that their God was back in Israel.

We may not be so different from the Jewish captives in Babylon. A lot of us act as though we can visit God in church once a week and get along perfectly fine without God the rest of the week.

One of the weaknesses of the Episcopal Church is that we have been the church of a class, the church of the one percent, the affluent, and we have done a poor job of reaching out to and including people who are different from us.

But the message of Pentecost is that God will not be confined by our prejudices and preconceptions. The God of Pentecost wants all the peoples of the earth to hear the Good News – Medes and Parthians and Elamites, the peoples of Egypt and Libya.

But that’s not all. Listen again to the words of Peter’s sermon:

In the last days it will be, God declares,

that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,

and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

and your old men shall dream dreams.

Even upon my slaves, both men and women,

in those days I will pour out my Spirit;

and they shall prophesy.

The message of Pentecost is radically inclusive. The good news is not just for people who speak English; it is for people of every language and culture. The gospel not only transcends language and culture but transcends the barriers of economics, gender, and age. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy. Your old and your young shall see visions. And even slaves shall speak the prophetic word.

The mighty wind of Pentecost overthrows our prejudices about who is in and who is out, who is clean and who is unclean, who should preach and who should just sit and listen. Prior to Pentecost, slaves had been forbidden to speak unless they were spoken to; women had not dared to speak to anyone outside their immediate family. But the wind of Pentecost swept aside those constricting beliefs. The prophetic Spirit was poured into women. Inspired by the Spirit, slaves spoke out and defied their masters. The Spirit is no longer confined to the young; even the elderly are given new songs to sing.

Week before last I shared with the staff my vision of where I would like Christ Church to go. It is based on the last words of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ so-called “great commission”: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…”

Note that there are four parts to the Great Commission: make disciples, all nations, baptize, and teach.

Repeat those with me: make disciples, all nations, baptize, and teach.

This is exactly the message of Pentecost. It begins with the disciples of Jesus. They proclaim the gospel to all the nations assembled in Jerusalem and then take it out to the farthest corners of the world. And if we read on in the second chapter of Acts, we find that on the day of Pentecost 3000 people were baptized and that they began to devote themselves to “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship…”

Christ Church needs the miracle of Pentecost so that we can carry out the Great Commission. We need the power to proclaim the gospel in the languages of the people around us; we need the Spirit’s help to listen to and hear what the world around us is asking for; and above all, we need to remember that our God is a powerful God who cannot be confined to one culture or race or language. God cannot be limited to one generation or gender or class.  And when that happens, the mighty wind that will sweep through this place will make Hurricane Katrina look like a summer breeze and the fire of the Spirit will ignite even these hard old hearts of ours.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Paul and Silas - Outside agitators (J. Barry Vaughn, May 12, 2013)

“With Paul and Silas, we came to Philippi in Macedonia, a Roman colony, and, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, "These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation." She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, "I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, "These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe."


Before Paul could say anything to defend himself, his senior warden said, “Now, Paul, didn’t I warn you about mixing religion and politics. Yes, a spiritual life is important, but people have to make a living.” And Paul’s bishop said, “Now see here, Paul, the owners, uh, I mean the employers of that young woman are very prominent members of the community. They may not be Episcopalians, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t respect them.”


I’m being facetious, of course, but my point is that the story of the slave girl in Acts 16 is about what happens when the Christian faith comes into conflict with economic and political power. I want to illustrate that point with a more recent and more tragic story, but first, a word of explanation is in order. When we hear the word “slave,” we automatically think of slavery as it existed in America before the Civil War, usually called “chattel slavery.” But slavery in the 1rst c world was different.


 Slavery in the ancient world was not a racial thing and it was not a hereditary condition. People usually became slaves for two reasons: either because of debts they could not pay or because they were prisoners of war.


The charge that the slave girl’s owners brought against Paul and Silas – “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe” was very similar to what people in the Deep South – my people, in other words - said about those who came south 50 years ago to participate in the civil rights movement. They accused them of being “outside agitators.”


Almost from the very beginning, Southerners in general and Alabamians in particular have resented what they have called “outside interference.” At least as far back as the Civil War, Southerners complained that Yankees just did not get it; they did not understand the Southern way of life. Of course, what that meant in antebellum Alabama was that Yankees wanted to put an end to slavery but did not really understand what a good, kind, and benevolent system slavery really was!

More recently, during the Civil Rights’ movement of the 1960s Southerners complained that Yankees (and Yankee journalists especially) did not understand the dynamics of the relationship between black folks and white folks in the Deep South.  If they did, then they would just go back home and leave us alone.

There may be just a little bit of truth to the charge that Yankees don’t get the South.  How can you explain sweet tea, cornbread, Hank Williams (both junior and senior), Mardi Gras, and any number of other Southern institutions to anyone from Massachusetts, Ohio, or California? Having spent a good part of my life as a missionary to New England, I know what I am talking about.

One of those “outside agitators” who just didn’t get the South, was an Episcopal seminarian named Jonathan Myrick Daniels.


Daniels was a graduate of Virginia Military Institute who had begun work on a PhD in English at Harvard before feeling called to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church. While Daniels was at the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Mass., Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., issued a call to the clergy of all faiths to participate in the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights.


Initially, Daniels did not respond to Dr. King’s call. At first, he thought that the civil rights movement was a purely political affair. But during evening prayer, as he listened to the words of the Magnificat, Mary’s song, he had a kind of epiphany. “God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty away. He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the poor and lowly.” And so Daniels went to Selma.


After the march, he stayed to participate in the work of voter registration. When he participated in a demonstration in the town of Hayneville, the police arrested Daniels and his fellow demonstrators, including a RC priest named Richard Morrisroe. After about a week, they were released. They walked from the jail to a small store about a block away to buy cold drinks. And as they left the store, a highway department employee named Thomas Coleman aimed a shotgun at a young woman who was with Daniels, but he stepped in front of her, took the full force of the blast and was killed. Coleman claimed he was acting in self defense and was acquitted by a jury of white men.


The bishop of Alabama at the time of Daniels’ murder was Charles Colcock Jones Carpenter. Carpenter deeply resented the “outside interference” of Yankees who came to Alabama to take part in the civil rights’ movement.  I still find this hard to believe but Bishop Carpenter’s one and only public statement about Daniels’ murder and Coleman’s acquittal took place at the diocesan convention that followed. Carpenter criticized "the crowd of visitors whose presence motivated by various objectives caused us much difficulty and brought unwarranted confusion and tragic consequences."


I don’t know how fully Daniels, a New Hampshire native, “got” the South, but at least he was aware that there was something he did not quite grasp.  Not long before he was killed he wrote these words in his journal:


“I began to lose self-righteousness when I discovered the extent to which my behavior was motivated by worldly desires and by the self-seeking messianism of Yankee deliverance! The point is simply, of course, that one's motives are usually mixed, and one had better know it.”


I love the phrase “self-seeking messianism of Yankee deliverance.” Every southerner has encountered it, and it can be very annoying to say the least. But speaking only for myself, I give thanks to God for the “Yankee messianism” that motivated people like Jonathan Daniels and Unitarian minister James Reeb (who was also killed) and for Catholic priest Father Richard Morrisroe who was severely wounded and others to risk and sometimes give their lives in the struggle to secure equal rights for African Americans.


But the Episcopal church designated Jonathan Daniels a martyr not because of his “yankee messianism” nor because he, like so many other young men and women from the north, came south to help register African American voters. We honor Jonathan because he gave his life so that another might live and because he was where he was and was doing what he was doing for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.


A martyr is a reminder. He or she is a sign in our midst reminding us of two things: First, they remind us that grace is costly. As Bonhoeffer said, “Grace is free but it is never cheap.” The cross shows us just how costly grace is. Indeed, if grace were not offered to us freely, we would be unable to afford it. But if we accept the grace offered to us in baptism and at the Lord’s table, then we may have to pay a very high price indeed. Daniels and other martyrs show us just how high the price might be.


Secondly, martyrs are God’s gift to the church to remind us that God is alive and well and active in the world. They are also God’s gift to the world, daring the world to explain away someone who gives her or his life for the sake of the gospel. If the crucifixion is a bonfire, then martyrs are the sparks from the fire. For a brief, brilliant moment, they light up the darkness. They give us just enough light to see the outline of a better world..


For several years now Alabama Episcopalians have sponsored a pilgrimage to Hayneville where Jonathan died and his killer was acquitted. We march from the jail to the store where Daniels was killed and then to the courthouse. The judge’s bench becomes the altar, and the place where Daniels’ killer was acquitted becomes the place where our lives are caught up in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.


The most moving part of that event to me takes place during the offertory.  Members of the congregation carry large photos of persons who were killed in Alabama during the struggle for civil rights. As the names of the persons in the photos are called, the photos are brought forward and each simply says, “Present.”


There’s no disputing the truth of that. The preface to the Eucharistic prayer affirms that when we sing the Sanctus we are joined by “angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven.”


The story of the slave girl in Acts 16 and the story of Jonathan Myrick Daniels show what can happen when the gospel of Jesus Christ comes into conflict with our economic and political interest. But they are both Easter stories, too.


Just as the tomb could not hold Christ, so the jail could not hold Paul and Silas. The Easter story tells us that death and defeat do not have the last word.  Light defeats darkness; justice overcomes injustice; life conquers death.  But Jonathan stated it more eloquently:


“I lost fear in the black belt when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord's death and Resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God…. As [we] said the daily offices day by day, we became more and more aware of the living reality of the invisible "communion of saints"--of the beloved community in Cambridge who were [praying], of the ones gathered around [God’s] throne in heaven--who blend with theirs our faltering songs of prayer and praise. With them, with black men and white men, with all of life, in Him Whose Name is above all the names that the races and nations shout, whose Name is Itself the Song Which fulfills and "ends" all songs, we are indelibly, unspeakably ONE.”

Monday, May 06, 2013

Do you want to be whole? (J. Barry Vaughn, May 5, 2013)

Even though Bonnie Polley did a great job of reading today’s gospel, I’d like to read it again and add a few verses. I’ll be reading from J.B. Phillips’ translation:

Some time later came one of the Jewish feast-days and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. There is in Jerusalem near the sheep-gate a pool surrounded by five arches, which has the Hebrew name of Bethzatha (the Pool of Bethesda). Under these arches a great many sick people were in the habit of lying; some of them were blind, some lame, and some had withered limbs. (They used to wait there for the "moving of the water", for at certain times an angel used to come down into the pool and disturb the water, and then the first person who stepped into the water after the disturbance would be healed of whatever he was suffering from.) One particular man had been there ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there on his back - knowing that he had been like that for a long time, he said to him, "Do you want to get well again?"

"Sir," replied the sick man, "I just haven't got anybody to put me into the pool when the water is all stirred up. While I'm trying to get there somebody else gets down into it first." "Get up," said Jesus, "pick up your bed and walk!" At once the man recovered, picked up his bed and walked.

This happened on a Sabbath day, which made the Jews keep on telling the man who had been healed, "It's the Sabbath, you know; it's not right for you to carry your bed." "The man who made me well," he replied, "was the one who told me, 'Pick up your bed and walk.'" Then they asked him, "And who is the man who told you to do that?" But the one who had been healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away in the dense crowd. Later Jesus found him in the Temple and said to him, "Look: you are a fit man now. Do not sin again or something worse might happen to you!" Then the man went off and informed the Jews that the one who had made him well was Jesus.

It was because Jesus did such things on the Sabbath day that the Jews persecuted him. But Jesus' answer to them was this, "My Father is still at work and therefore I work as well." This remark made the Jews all the more determined to kill him, because not only did he break the Sabbath but he referred to God as his own Father, so putting himself on equal terms with God.

I wanted to read a few verses beyond where the lectionary ends for a couple of reasons. First, I think this story makes more sense if we read to the end of v. 9. Secondly, the whole business about the angel moving or troubling the water is omitted from most translations because New Testament scholars believe that this was added by a later editor of John. And finally and most importantly, Jesus' question to the paralytic is almost always mistranslated as "Do you want to get well?" Jesus really said, "Do you want TO BE MADE WHOLE?"


Do you want to be made whole? What kind of question is that? On the face of it, the question seems a little ridiculous. Of course, we want to be made whole. Who would not want to be made whole? But maybe the question was not so ridiculous after all.


First, modern medicine and perhaps medical science from the beginning of time, has been more geared to treating illnesses than to promoting wholeness. Please understand that I am not criticizing physicians, nurses, and other health professionals. Actually, I think that most people I know who practice medicine, whether they are doctors, nurses, or medical technicians, really do see medicine more as an art, than a science. They understand the difference between alleviating symptoms and promoting wholeness. Most of them understand that the real question is the one that Jesus asked: Do you want to be made whole?


But sometimes all a physician can do is treat the disease and most of the time that is enough.


One of the great TV series of all times was Northern Exposure, a show about an East Coast physician who is sent to a small town in Alaska to pay off his student loan. In one episode, he spends time with a Native American shaman or healer and is appalled at all the time the shaman apparently wastes in getting to know everything he possibly can know about his patients.


But I believe that medical science is beginning to learn that we are so much more than the sum of our parts, that we are products of our environment, our relationships, our families, our culture, that healing is not just a matter of prescribing pills and that sometimes, maybe most of the time, healing is as much spiritual and psychological as it is physical.


The second thing I want you to note is what John tells us about the pool of Bethesda. Apparently, there was a popular belief that held that an angel would sometimes trouble the water, that is make it foam and gush. Perhaps the pool was connected to an underground stream. Perhaps it was even a hot spring. No one really knows.


But the paralytic in this story and apparently many others came to this spring seeking healing, hoping that they would be the first into the water and therefore would be healed.


But my question is, Why? Surely there were other ways to be healed. Medical science was primitive in the 1rst c. to say the least, and killed more often than it cured. But there were some physicians in the ancient world who achieved a degree of success.


I believe there's a parallel between the paralytic and people in our day who neglect the well-established and successful medical treatments offered by physicians and seek instead to be treated by dubious and often dangerous alternative treatments. There is a certain appeal to the idea that traditional Asian or native American treatments can do what modern medical science cannot do. There are far too many shady characters who play upon people's fears and anxieties or use the lure of the spectacular and mysterious to gain financial advantage.


Finally, consider Jesus' question again: "Do you want to be made whole?"


In John's gospel every detail is significant, and numbers are often highly symbolic. John tells us that the pool where the man was lying had five porticoes or gates. Could five signify the Torah, the first five books of our Bibles? I don't know.


The more significant and interesting number is the man's age. John tells us that he was 38 years old. In the 1rst c. life expectancy was considerably lower than it is now. Fifty was quite old in Jesus' day and time. So this man has been ill for the great majority of his life and probably doesn't have many years left.


The question that would occur to me and seems to have occurred to Jesus is, Why has this man been sick for so long? Could he not have found someone to treat him? Couldn't he have sought relief from some other healer? Jesus wasn't the only spiritual figure performing miracles of healing in the 1rst c. Perhaps the man could simply have learned to live with his illness.


But instead he has been lying on the edge of this pool for years. Perhaps he doesn't really want healing or wholeness at all.


There can be a certain satisfaction, a certain pay off, in remaining stuck in our brokenness, our DIS-ease. The philosopher Voltaire said, "People don't go to physicians to change their lifestyles: They go to physicians to relieve their symptoms so they can resume their lifestyles."


There are even those who use their illness to manipulate others' compassion.  There are always so-called "bleeding hearts" like me (and frankly like a lot of my colleagues in the ministry) who even feel a little guilty that we are relatively healthy and that sort of guilt is easily manipulated.


I believe that there are two fundamental, though unequal, forces in the universe. One is the drive toward disintegration and brokenness. The Bible calls this SIN.


In other words, sin is not overdrinking, over-eating, sex outside of marriage, greed, and so on. Don't misunderstand what I'm saying. I'm not saying these things are good. I'm saying that they are really symptoms of a much larger problem. They are symptoms of the fundamental brokenness of the human heart and of the universes.


The playwright Eugene O'Neill said, "Humans are broken and they live by mending." Exactly. We are broken and we live by mending... unless we are like the paralytic in today's gospel reading and have learned to enjoy our brokenness and stay stuck in it.


The other fundamental force in the universe is the drive toward integration and wholeness, and I believe this is far stronger. Call this grace or even love. I believe that God is always summoning us toward wholeness and that if we make even the slightest move in this direction, God will help us, pull us upward and out of our brokenness, our DIS-ease in the direction of wholeness.


The early Christian theologian Irenaeus said, "The glory of God is a human being fully alive." The healthier we are, the more complete we are, the more whole we are, the more we reflect the glory of God. God longs for us to be complete and is always pushing us toward wholeness and away from brokenness. But we have to recognize our brokenness, recognize the fundamental force that is pushing us in the opposite direction, toward brokenness and disintegration and resist it.


Do you want to be whole? Jesus asked the man beside the pool. But it is a question that Jesus also asks institutions.


I believe that God is asking Christ Church, Do you want to be whole? Do you want to be healed? Do you want to move forward? Or do you want to stay stuck in the past, stuck in old, destructive ways behaving? Make no mistake: I believe this is largely a healthy church. There is an enormous amount of love and grace here. If I believed otherwise, I would not have come.


But churches can sometimes be like the paralytic in today's gospel reading. The paralytic believed in what we might call a "quack cure" - that if he could get into the water first while it was moving and foaming, he would be cured.


Churches often believe in quack cures. We will be fine if only we trade our pipe organs for guitars... if only we sing praise songs instead of hymns... if only we had more young families with children.. if only we fed more hungry people...


Make no mistake: Christ Church needs more families with children. We need to feed as many hungry people as we can. But there is no quick fix for our problems. And what we need is not guitars or praise songs or even families with children: what we need is Jesus.


Jesus is asking Christ Church: Do you want to be made whole? I hope and pray that we will answer yes and do everything in our power to promote wholeness.